It has been nearly 200 years since Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein first appeared, but that cautionary tale of an ambitious scientist who creates a monster from corpses remains extremely popular to this day. The world's most famous living-dead story is just one of the many popular tales that is woven into Frankenstein!!, a "pan-demonium" for baritone chansonnier (basically a cabaret singer) and ensemble or orchestra, composed between 1971 and 1977 by Heinz Karl Gruber (known as HK). It is a setting of a series of twisted versions of children's rhymes by the late H.C. Artmann, in which Shelley's fantastic characters make only brief appearances : there are also allusions to Robinson Crusoe, James Bond, Goldfinger, Superman, John Wayne, and various vampires. But the title seems particularly apt because this unabashedly tonal work was first conceived when the majority of the Austrian composer's colleagues vociferously claimed that tonality was a dead idiom.
On December 16 and 17 : for the first 2011 _12 program of CONTACT!, the Philharmonic's new-music series performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Peter Norton Symphony Space : Music Director Alan Gilbert leads the Orchestra's musicians in Frankenstein!! (with Gruber himself serving as chansonnier). Also on the program are more recent works by Alexandre Lunsqui (a world premiere) and Magnus Lindberg, the Philharmonic's Marie-Jos_e Kravis Composer- in-Residence (now in his third season), who works closely with Gilbert to curate this series. These two composers, in their own very different ways, also make conscious allusions to older musical traditions, but by presenting these works together and hearing directly from the composers themselves (a hallmark of the series), audiences will have an opportunity to compare their approaches.
"The idea is to present music in a less formalized way," Alan Gilbert says of the series. "We want there to be a familiar 'contact' with the audience, and when composers are able to be at the concerts where their music is being played and they can speak directly to the audience, it can break through any initial barrier of unfamiliarity. The idea is to present music in the way it's most likely to reach people. It's what music is about." This philosophy infuses not only the concerts that the Music Director is leading this month, but also the program that David Robertson will conduct June 8 _9 (see nyphil.org/contact for details).
Magnus Lindberg came to prominence in his native Finland with a series of brash, uncompromising modernist works, but over the past decade he has incorporated elements of earlier music into his language, resulting in an extraordinarily rich palette. His Gran Duo, for 13 woodwinds and 11 brass and composed from 1999 to 2000, is an important transitional work to his current idiom. The piece utilizes an idiosyncratic approach to the centuries-old chaconne form : its title even alludes to Mozart's celebrated Gran partita, a massive work for wind ensemble. Alexandre Lunsqui's new work, which is a Philharmonic commission, is titled Fibers, Yarn, and Wire. While also a committed modernist, he is deeply inspired by the traditional music of his homeland, Brazil, and has composed works that feature the Afro-Brazilian berimbau, a single-string musical bow. Like many 21st-century composers, Lindberg and Lunsqui are comfortable taking ideas from all places and time periods to forge a new contemporary sound.
However, 40 years ago, when Gruber's ideas for what later became Frankenstein!! fi rst began to take shape, the mainstream of contemporary music was an extremely different environment. According to him, "Europe especially was dominated by the dictators from Darmstadt who said the only possibility of making music is atonal writing in the serial technique and that tonality is passed and gone. But tonality is an idiom which enables the composer to speak to everybody. Everybody has ears and can recognize what's going on, whether they are in South America or North America, on the North Pole or in Romania. You do not need experts to tell the audience what they hear or what they have to hear." The genesis of Frankenstein!! lies in a movement that began almost 50 years ago. Gruber recalls: "In the 1960s, Kurt Schwertsik called all his friends, like Otto Zykan and me, and said we should look for a new direction in music and call it 'MOB art and tone ART.' We began to dream of the possibility of simplifying the music, re-integrating tonality. There was only one condition: we never should forget what we learned from Webern, Schoenberg, Berg, Eisler, and even the people from Darmstadt who were very interesting composers, like Stockhausen, Boulez, Maderna, and Nono. We wanted to fi nd a common denominator between audience members with some education and those who are uneducated."
Schwertsik, Zykan, and Gruber formed the Vienna MOB art and tone ART Ensemble, composing music for it that has sometimes been described as the "Third Viennese School." "We all began to write little 'MOB' pieces," Gruber remembers, "and in one week, I composed a background piece to a text by H.C. Artmann for an ensemble of six instruments : I played the double bass, and because Artmann called these children's rhymes I also used toy instruments. Kurt Schwertsik said, 'That is too good for background music; you should develop it.' So I made a Frankenstein Suite, which we played from 1971 to 1975."
In 1976 Gruber joined the roster of the publishing firm of Boosey & Hawkes. David Drew, then the director of new music for Boosey's London office, took a particular interest in the Frankenstein Suite and asked the composer to expand it for orchestra. Gruber took one-and-a-half years to complete the work in its present form, which integrates 18 Artmann texts into eight continuous movements (and now with the two exclamation points in the title, added by Drew). The promising young conductor Simon Rattle agreed to lead its world premiere by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 1978, with Gruber as chansonnier. It was an instant sensation with critics and audience alike. The following year Schwertsik led the Viennese ensemble die reihe at the Berlin Festival in a performance for which Gruber (who again was the chansonnier) had created an arrangement for 12 players that retains all the material of his orchestral version. This is the version that the New York Philharmonic will perform his month.
Both versions are filled with all sorts of peculiar phenomena. Wind players speak into their instruments. At one point a percussionist plays with the handles of the mallets instead of their heads. Many players put down their usual instruments to pick up toy trumpet, toy piano, melodicas, motor horn, plastic hosepipes, and other toys. One passage calls for some instrumentalists to sing like a Russian Orthodox chorus.
Then there is the chansonnier, who speaks, shouts, whistles, and vocalizes through a kazoo, in addition to singing with a wide variety of timbres, ranging from guttural to nasal. Over the years others : notably including the American composer William Bolcom : have successfully tackled this extraordinarily idiosyncratic vocal assignment, but the most frequent soloist has been Gruber himself, who has performed the work : sometimes in English, sometimes in German, depending on the location : countless times all over the globe.
It is rare for a composer to have such an intimate ongoing relationship with a decadesold work, but Frankenstein!! and Gruber's performance of it continues to remain fresh. Unlike the horrific fiend that Dr. Victor Frankenstein created in his laboratory, who ultimately could not survive, this zany score has stood the test of time.
ASCAP Award-winning composer and music journalist Frank J. Oteri is the composer advocate at the American Music Center and the founding editor of NewMusicBox (www.newmusicbox.org), its Web magazine.